Stem cells can be programmed to become just about any tissue in the body. That could lead to treatments for a whole range of diseases and reduce the need for organ transplants.
Pat Smith is alive today after donated stem cells from her sister reduced tumors caused by non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
"They're trying to build a new immune system for me through my sister's cells and it's working!" she says.
Stem cells from umbilical cord blood helped Dana Reilly recover from a rare and deadly auto-immune disease, transforming her from a bloated, sickly child to a healthy and smiling one.
Stem cell researchers such as Dr. Neil Theise of NYU says the implications are mind boggling.
"We're opening huge new areas of the ability to heal the body, heal the body from things that were thought to be permanent injuries or fatal injuries."
Think of a stem cell as a blank slate, a cell with no identity, says CBS 2s Paul Moniz. Its value lies in its unique ability to be programmed in a lab to become almost any cell in the body.
Doctors could take stem cells, convert them into nerve cells and give an injection of healthy cells to repair the damage of spinal cord injury. The same principle applies after a heart attack, in which some of the cardiac muscle dies. Stem cells could be transformed into cardiac cells and then injected, healing heart tissue.
Stem cells can come from a variety of sources. Adults carry them in small quantities in their blood and they can even be found in the fat that Americans spend millions trying to get rid of.
But it's fetal stem cells that are causing the most controversy. Acquired from unused embryos at fertility clinics or from abortions, even developed in a lab, these cells are seen as highly valuable because of their versatility. But in order to extract them, doctors must destroy the embryo.
At immediate issue is whether federal money should be used to finance research on embryonic stem cells. Supporters point to possible cures for diseases such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers.
At a senate hearing, Tennessee Republican senator Bill Frist, a heart surgeon by training, says even though he opposes abortion, he believes using cells from embryos could have significant benefits if research is tightly controlled.
"I believe we need a national research registry to ensure a transparent, in depth monitoring of federally-funded stem cell research to promote high quality research standards," he says.
But Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas voiced strong reservations.
"The principle being denied here is the dignity of a young human, effectively making the human embryo the same as plant or animal life, property or even livestock," he says.
A government report released Wednesday advises the Bush administration that embryonic stem cell research should be included as an approach to treating disease, but concludes a lot more work needs to b done to see how well it works.
President Bush is expected to decide on the funding issue later this month. If he rejects it, supporters in Congress vow to try to make it law.
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